Header Graphic
Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History
Chapter Eight





The ‘sixties were the war years – the Civil War years. No one who lived through them will ever forget the scenes then enacted in our quiet streets. The great drama was played out many miles from Dayton, in the halls of Congress and on the battlefields of the South. Here in Dayton we were behind the scenes, so to speak. But our share was as vital to us as the greater action of the war itself. The story as a whole has been many times written in the different histories of our times and much valuable data as to events and personalities is to be found in the local histories. It would seem therefore pardonable if I should put the story down as it appeared to me a child of seven when the war broke out.

Our little city nestling in the valley with its surrounding belt of river and green hills looked serene and quiet in those days, but there was a seething undertone of which I was only dimly conscious. Men came and talked with my father and I knew there was something ominous in their talk. New words were being heard that had never been heard before: “Rebels,” “Secession,” “Union,” “Traitor,” “Red, White and Blue.”  The flag seemed to take on a sudden new significance. People took sides. Even the children were drawn into it and I sensed a certain hostility because my father was known to be an anti-war Democrat.

It was a warm April day in 1861. The streets were suddenly rent by a cry that came from newspaper boys with an extra issue, which said, “Sumter fired on!” What was Sumter and why was it fired on?  I ran into the house to seek my father and found him sitting with head bowed in hands before the fire in the sitting-room, an attitude of the deepest sorrow. “What is it, father?” I cried. “What has happened?” “It is war,” he replied. “Civil War! Brother against brother.”

I was a little girl; I had read no history; I knew nothing of politics or slavery or the great issues of the day, but the bowed shoulders told me more than books. It was the impact of sheer tragedy that we were facing and which I only dimly understood. I was to understand better and better as time went on.

The excitement grew with each dispatch from Washington. Higher and higher rose the sentiment for war. If you were an abolitionist you were all right. If not you had best bury your head and keep still. Recruiting offices opened and the older boys at school began to enlist. There was a great deal of the hurrah side of war manifested – flag raisings and marching with banners. New songs were on everybody’s lips – “The Union Forever, Hurrah Boys, Hurrah!” “The Red, White and Blue,” “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand Strong.” The bands played them and we sang them. Everything centered on the Courthouse steps. Boys in blue, girls in big hoops and little round caps atop their curls, filled the streets. I know now that in less than two days after Lincoln’s call for troops Dayton had answered it by sending two companies of militia. I saw them march to the depot and one would have thought they were going to a festival instead of to a war. Indeed, I well remember how sure that the South would be put down in no time, and that in a few weeks the boys would be back home again. I know now too, that it was the sagacious foresight of Salmon P. Chase, then Governor of Ohio, that made possible the quick response of Ohio with its well organized and finely equipped militia. As a State we were far and away ahead of other states. Dayton likes to live up to big promises and she did then.

Two regiments were equipped here and at Camp Chase on the Springfield Pike, three miles east of town. Every time a contingent of forces entrained, there were the same scenes of excitement and patriotism. People worked themselves into a frenzy. The two newspapers: the “Journal,” Republican, and the “Empire,” Democratic, were vitriolic in their attacks on each other. We began to know what the mob spirit was. One night we awoke to hear hoarse voices and to see the light of flames in the vicinity. It was the “Journal” office on Main Street and just back of our house. From a bedroom window I watched it with a younger brother. The glare, the shouts of men, the terrified neighing of horses taken from a threatened stable and tied in front of our house, all filled me with terror. A fire is a fearful thing, but when combined with political hatred and partisan bitterness it is indeed something to appall the soul.

Fear and antagonism did not stop with incendiarism but led to actual murder. My father was called to attend the editor of the “Empire,” who was shot as he was coming home from market. There was nothing to do for he died almost instantly, a war casualty that had no glory in it.

Long and longer grew the war story. The months dragged on. We heard of Chickamauga, Bull Run, Stone River, Chancellorsville. Notices of the dead were posted at the Courthouse corner and we feared to look. War funerals wended their way out Brown Street to the cemetery, with the dead march as an accompaniment and flags at half mast. More and more we saw women in black. Then  came a piece of news that took us as a family in. There had been a great battle at Pittsburg Landing and my father as a surgeon was called to minister to the wounded. It was not a pleasant time for a wife to be left along with three little children. Nothing but assurance that doctors were safe because their work kept them behind the lines was any comfort to me. I am afraid I was not much of a patriot. He came home to us safely, in time, with awful tales of the horrors of war, and then we moved into another home. And always the bitter hatred of anybody that thought out of the stream of common opinion pursued us as a family. Because my father was a personal friend of Vallandigham I was subjected to a sort of persecution from my schoolmates. A State election was on hand, with Brough the Republican candidate, and processions and meeting in order. I was jerked to the scene of one public demonstration and was told to say at the top of my voice:


Hurrah for Brough and Abraham!

And a rope to hang Vallandigham!


Well, I wouldn’t. Wild horses could not get it out of me. Whereupon I was shut up in an empty outbuilding and the girls all went home to supper. Rescued by a frightened and irate father I told him I had stood up for our side. He kissed me and laughed.

My mother had her own particular ordeal. Late  at night. Father  away on an all-night case in the country. Mother  sleeping with the children in the sitting room downstairs. Fanny Stacey (otherwhere described) in an adjoining room. Steps  and voices outside. Through a tinted shade a group of men could be seen pointing towards the house. The door bell and the curt question: “Is the doctor home?” No answer possible except the true one: “No.” “When will he be back?” “I can’t tell.” Then quiet for a time. Then voices and steps sound from the side porch and it was thought best to awaken Fanny to be what moral support a very deaf, very timid, person could be. Her immediate reaction to the situation was to crawl under the bed where her hair catching in the bed springs kept her a prisoner. At last the crowd dispersed and the last remark heard by my trembling mother was “We’ll burn this hell-hole down next.”

Other less personal occurrences crowded the next few years. A bazaar was held in the Beckel House for the benefit of the soldier families. A cantata was given in Huston Hall, directed by James Turpin for the same purpose. Patriotism grew as the news indicated that the North would be victorious. And at last it was. Another  event to hold the attention of childish minds. At two in the morning our doorbell was rung, not to ask about the doctor but to tell us that Lee had surrendered. The war was over and won! Then again we heard the guns of victory fired, this time from the Commons; again heard the bands and saw the red and white and blue bunting covering buildings. Great rejoicing, and then – great sorrow. The wires spoke again and they told us of the assassination of President Lincoln. Decorations came down, the music changed to a minor key, everybody was seen in tears and crape, America had lost her best friend.

This was how the Civil War seemed to one who had no idea of its meaning – a faintly colored sketch that the bigger and better histories do not give. Dayton was, during these war years, as for some time after, a small middle-western city, or rather, a mere country town, past its village life and not yet emerged into cityhood. Then, as now, the corner of Third and Main streets was the center. To me it was more. It was the center of the universe. My imagination could impossibly picture anything more portentous than the buildings that graced that locality. There was the courthouse with the pillars, the Phillips House, then in its pristine magnificence. Busses were always backed up to the sidewalk in front of the Third Street entrance, embodying in themselves a hint of far-off places like Cincinnati or Cleveland. There was Keifer and Conover’s store on the southeast corner and the Harshman and Gorman bank on the northeast, with Odell’s bookbindery above it. How imposing it looked to my eyes and how meager it really was!

The business section of Dayton, in that day, began and ended in the two squares between Second and Fourth streets on Main. A few stores spread out on Third each side of Main. There were dwellings between the Phillips House and the church on the corner of Ludlow, and between the courthouse and Ludlow. The section west of Wilkinson was entirely residential. Miss Eaker lived in the big box-like house on the corner which afterward became the Young Men’s Christian Association and now has given way to something else. The imposing pillared home of Valentine Winters graced the middle of the block but no one remembers it when looking at the Federal Building on that site. The Youngs lived on that block and the Gebharts, the Loomises, the Keifers and, in the house not yet occupied by the Bicycle Club dwelt the Willey Smiths and later the Craigheads. Perry Street was the last real cross street, and the Brady home on the corner the last good residence on Third. Beyond that the houses were small and scattered, interspersed with vegetable gardens and corn patches. The street led on to the levee where it went up and over the top and down into a gravelly river bottom before it again rose to meet the bridge.

This bridge, a dark, covered, timbered structure, the only kind they knew how to build in those days, only crossed the main current of the river. As soon as the river rose, as it did regularly spring and fall, it swept over the roadway between the bridge and town, making an impassable river. It could be forded, of course, and always, the horse plunging along in and out of the holes in the gravel bottom. If the river rose to any considerable height the people on the west side of the river were quite cut off from town until the river went down. There were not many of them. Cornfields began immediately as one crossed the bridge. One building only remains in my memory and it is not a fragrant memory. On the levee opposite the end of Fourth Street stood Finney Sprague’s glue factory, supposed to be too remote from civilization to trouble the noses of Daytonians, but I can smell it yet. On Third Street proper I remember field after field on either side of the soft dirt road, but no dwellings except farm houses. On the corner of Summit was a blacksmith shop.

So  much for the west side of small old Dayton. On Main Street, stores ceased and homes began just north of Second. The roadway, wide, empty, muddy in winter and dusty in summer, plunged into the dark mouth of the old wooden bridge. Once across this bridge one was again in the country, except for a handful of small houses on either side of the road called McPhersontown. Beyond that, nothing but cornfields, unless they were wheat fields, until one reached West Milton, Covington or Ludlow Falls, for this was the Covington Pike of dear memory to those who wanted a drive in the country.

Just over the bridge a mud road slanted down to the left (now Riverview Avenue) and followed the curve of the river. It was a pleasant drive, sunny, quiet and warm, the huge sycamore trees that lined the bank leaning out over the current and holding on to a precarious roothold in the soft loam. Long ago they were carried down in a flood and no one thinks to plant more. Along that bank in the ‘sixties was the only rope-walk in Dayton. It was owned by a man named Kilworth. His starting point was in a shed near the bridge from whence he carried the strands of hemp to a point at some distance, twisting as he walked and slowly manipulating the strands. When they had been twisted long enough and hard enough and suddenly released they formed, of their own accord it seemed, a nice smooth rope. This was an operation watched with extreme interest by bystanders.

Main Street toward the south stopped being a business street suddenly, and at Fourth came out frankly as a leading residential section. On the west side were four large homes with shady yards and pleasant entrances. They belong to the Peter P. Lowes, the John G. Lowes, the Lytles and the Coblentzs. On the east side, the Lutheran Church presently raised its beautiful tower to heaven but has now been scattered to the earth, to give way to commercialism.

Jefferson Street for its full length was a thoroughfare of stately old mansions. The Cleggs lived there, the Beckels, the Parrotts, the Voorhees, and the Gormans. First and Second streets, from Main West, presented an unbroken vista of lovely well-kept homes. From east to west one could count the names of families who have made Dayton what it is: Harries, Simms, Walters, Bimm, Parrott, Bunstine, Steele, Phillips, McDaniels, King, Smith, and the old Cooper Seminary, where all the girls went to school; then Crane, Barney, Babbitt, Rench, and others down to the levee; after these came the rise to the top of the levee and the green pastures along the river. Second Street held Gebharts, Greens, Perrines, Peases, Edgars, Neals, Gumps, and so on again to the river, always the end of everything as far as Dayton was concerned, the boundary beyond which was Montgomery County.

An old resident of Dayton, having moved to California, and having heard that a business building then lately erected on the corner of Ludlow and Second Streets was probably the precursor of more, exclaimed in dismay: “But where are Dayton people to live?” Her idea was that being forcibly exiled from a home on the blocks bounded by First and Second, Ludlow and Perry streets, a Daytonian would fall off the earth into oblivious space.

Let us return to the perhaps dry enumeration of what constituted Dayton in the ‘sixties. East Third Street soon left behind the buildings of the center of town and led to open spaces, beyond which were the Harries Station and Harshmanville, five miles away. Fifth Street crossed the canal (yes, oh Daytonian of the present time! There was a canal right through the middle of things and reached a semi-suburb called Oregon, of which there was nothing much, except the Darst mills, a fire engine house, some small stores and then the inevitable wide-spaced “commons” full of gypsum weed, dandelions and rubbish heaps. One thing I must not forget. A German baker named Wolf, in his little bakery on Fifth Street, manufactured a delectable cracker sold for years as Wolf’s crackers. They are a strictly indigenous product and not found anywhere else. For at least seventy years Daytonians have eaten them with oyster soup and with cream cheese, and it is hard to imagine a substitute. The name has been changed to the “Dayton cracker” but, being made by the original formula, they taste the same. Dynasties may rise and fall and so may the Miami River, and all our old landmarks may be replaced by skyscrapers, but as long as we have the Dayton cracker we can carry on.

South of Dayton, Main Street ran out into the country soon after it passed the fairgrounds. Ludlow Street had no buildings of any account below the railroad tracks. There was indeed a schoolhouse, known as Campbell’s school where a good many of the town boys went, also a stone yard to which the limestone from the quarries on the Beaverton Pike were hauled for cutting and where chisels and hammers of the workmen made a musical din on the summer air.

Then more open spaces, with Irish and darkey cabins, potato patches, cow pastures and weeds, with this difference that, whereas there were commons between the ends of all the streets and the river, the Ludlow Street expanse was known as “the Commons.” My single concern with the Commons was to go there on errands for my mother relative to household help. There lived a muscular and vociferous Irish woman whose brogue resounded whenever she came to do the family washing. Her name was Shea, but we called her “She-hee,” although not in derision, as most of our conversation was. When she hung out the clothes it was our treasured habit to sing “No Irish need apply” at her,  that being a popular song brought into fashion by the minstrel shows that came to Dayton.

The railroad tracks going west crossed, as they do now, the Miami River upon the last bridge of the four that connected us with the country beyond. If  one had an errand on the other side, one drove up over the levee and down straight into the current which was pretty deep and swift just at that side. To me it was always a perilous adventure, the buggy seeming to swim upstream and the water not  seldom sweeping through the buggy bed, forcing us to put out feet on the dashboard.

As I remember the Dayton streets of that time, my first impression, colored by the condition of our present traffic, is that of solitariness. Old pictures will bear me out. Two buggies to a block covered the traffic of 1865. Drays were a familiar feature, although they since have completely disappeared. Not even a picture of one survives. Turned, with tail to the sidewalk from which barrels were rolled up onto the sloping floor, pushed forward and held in place by stakes run through holes in the floor, they were a useful vehicle for the transportation of freight. The streets themselves became a problem early in our city life. The underlying gravel upon which our earliest citizens prided themselves proved less of a blessing than a curse. For superimposed loads of it piled the middle of the street so much higher than the gutters that only the vehicle in the middle of the road kept an even keel. The ones on the side tilted at an uncomfortable angle. Our limestone deposits made a sort of mortar bed when the rains came and, when the winds followed, it was transformed into an alkali powder very trying to throat and nose. Pigs and cows roamed at will. Almost every family kept a cow and either used or sold the milk. At evening the cows were driven home from across the river by little boys hired for the purpose. A mother pig with her brood could nestle comfortable in a puddle on the corner of Jefferson and Fourth street without menace from her human neighbors. Geese squawked their way across our principal thoroughfares without molestation.

The first citizen to suggest, through the papers, that this bucolic state of things cut us off from competing with the leading cities of the Nation was bitterly denounced as entirely unworthy of being listened to. Indignant letters from “Pro Bono Publico” and all his family demanded: “How can we get along if we have to shut up our livestock and go to the expense of feeding them?”

For perhaps two blocks north and south and east and west from the municipal center there were stone sidewalks, none elsewhere; of curbing and guttering there was none. An ordinance printed in an early edition of the “Centinel” forbade people driving across the sidewalks “unless absolutely necessary,: but there being no traffic policeman the phrase “absolutely necessary” was left to the individual to define.

Lest I convey the impression that the life in Dayton that day was rough and primitive, let me hasten to say that there was in the decades following 1840 and 1850 a not by any means small amount of what they used to call “genteel” living. That is, there were social coteries where fine old silver and delicate china made entertaining a joy. Domestic living, if not on the precise scale of values know today was still lavish and generous. Wives had so little to do outside of keeping house that they did it superlatively well. If it be asked,     “who were the moneyed men of Dayton of that day?” the mind will unconsciously travel in a different direction from that of the present. The palatial homes of Dayton are now south of the city in Oakwood, and Hills and Dales, but at that time those hilly acres were nothing but a part of Montgomery County. The Dayton “Journal,” for May 3, 1869, lets some insight into the subject with its list of taxable incomes. It is interesting to find that the thousand dollar exemption was in force then as now; also all funds invested in certain classes of corporations were taxed in corporation returns and not by the individual owner. By taking these items into calculation one may ascertain the incomes of the leading men of financial standing in Dayton at that time.

Several things are to be noted: First, that fewer than seven hundred men in Montgomery County paid any income tax at all; second, these men paid a total income tax of only $62,347; and third, only fourteen men had incomes running to five figures. They ranged all the way from E. E. Barney at $10,713 to Alexander Gebhart at $30,493, subtracting, of course, the thousand dollars exemption. The twelve remaining names on the golden list were: John C. Dunlevy, $15,004; W. K. Eckert, $11,000; Joseph Clegg, $12,688; Edward Brennan, $12,045; E. G. Beck, $19,304; Preserved Smith, $11,191;     T. A. Phillips, $11,981; D. E. McSherry, $11,914; George W. Harshman, $17,960; J. H. Peirce, $12,050; Alfred Pruden, $14,839; Adam Pritz, $12,957. So  those names comprised in 1868, “richest Dayton.”

The above noted belonged to the millionaire class of that day. Other rich men were Isaac Van Ausdal, $1,326; Eugene J. Barney, $4,369; Samuel Craighead, $3,465; William P. Callahan, $8,000; R. R. Dickey, $5,075; Charles B. Clegg, $4,265; Dennis Dwyer, $1,720; J. H. Winters, $1,283; J. A. Walters, $2,031; Ezra Bimm, $3,200; R. W. Steele, $1,873; Mary Belle Eaker, $2,673; John W. Stoddard, $6,900; John A. McMahon, $3,185; H. V. Perrine, $1,748; William P. Huffman, $6,286.

It gives one, as the French say, “abundantly to think.” Here was life carried on, families brought up, social affairs conducted, charities maintained, on individual incomes that would today mean nothing less than poverty. The key to the puzzle is, of course, in the reduced purchasing power of the dollar. Money went farther in the ‘sixties than it does in the nineteen-thirties. The Dayton of 1868 was not a meager Dayton; it was as full of the graces and amenities of life as today, although on a different scale.

The names on this list represent the contributing forces that built up the city. The Lutheran Church, for instance, was constructed and financed largely with Gebhart money, and they were not all Alexanders either. He was the richest brother but the rest did their bit nobly.

People lived well, gave big parties, set overflowing dinner tables, carpeted their parlors with gay Brussels carpets, and graced windows with long lace curtains. They drove carriages with high-stepping horses and did these things on incomes which today would not keep a working man in comfort. To take single instances: Dr. Reeve, a plain medical practitioner, was never even on the fringes of Dayton rich men. Including the exemption he had a little over $3,000 a year income on which he reared four children, sending them to eastern schools or to Europe, or both, for their education; kept two, and sometimes three, horses; and lived, the six of them, comfortably and happily on such a stipend.

The John Stoddards across the river, maintained a house that even to its last day when it was demolished to make room for the Masonic Temple, was an example of carved wood, ornamented ceilings and gorgeous hangings that represented money and money and money. Down the magnificent stairway I have seen Mrs. Stoddard come, to greet her guests, in a  blue velvet with a two-yard train, her white neck glittering with pearls and diamonds. The house and everything in it were proof that the Stoddards had everything that money could buy in that day and yet they had it on about eight thousand a year. Those days are gone – the names, the families, the big houses and the carved lintels. Sic transit Gloria Stoddard! Which may be bad Latin but allowable as sentiment.

That ogre of present-day life, the H. C. of L., had not raised his horrible head amongst us. One could rent a pleasant house on a nice residential street for twenty dollars a month. One could boldly carry a market basket down town with only a dollar in one’s pocket and get by, too. That sum would secure the Sunday roast, a week’s supply of butter and eggs, and vegetables enough to fill it up to the handle. A housekeeper would be shocked at having to pay more than a dollar for the Christmas turkey. A general housework girl could be had, in 1865, for three dollars a week including the family laundry. You put ten cents into the plate at church and hoped such generosity would be counted against your transgressions. You gave a party and paid the musicians five dollars, and you got a baby for the same figure. Elihu Thompson was a well-to-do lawyer, but he got along on an income of a little over a thousand dollars and, if I am not mistaken, he drove a buggy on it. Most people did, and took care of the horse themselves. Valentine Schaeffer brought up seven good Methodist children on $1,700 a year. Since two thousand-dollar income made a man feel rich he looked and acted rich if he had it. To see Thomas Babbitt walk down Main Street (a real Main Street and a real Babbitt) was to see Rockafellerean prosperity personified. He looked like a millionaire, he walked like a millionaire and yet the assessor, Ashley Brown , has him for only about $3,500, less the exemption.

In no single way have we progressed more astonishingly since the days of which I am writing, as in health. I am not thinking of advanced surgery or antiseptics or anaesthetics, but of the ordinary everyday measures which we now take to keep well but which were not even whispered in the ‘sixties. One common ailment was sick headaches. They were recurrent. Everybody had them at intervals and always expected to. The outraged stomach and nerves rebelled once every so often and sent the owner to bed to sleep it off and learn better if he could. Fresh air, fresh water and green vegetables were almost unknown considerations. The daily diet included meat three times a day and most of it fried. Windows were not only shut all winter but the cracks filled in with selvage from the tailors. No one ever slept out of doors even in summer. No green vegetables were eaten until they grew in the market gardens near Dayton. Oranges were luxuries. In any family there was always one member of it collapsed with either malaria or migraine or both. The doctors did nothing but prescribe drugs, mostly violent purgatives, and quinine.

It was the popular belief that children’s contagious diseases were inevitable and necessary. All children took their turn at having measles, chicken-pox and whooping-cough, and they always would have them, so the “the sooner the better,” said the mothers. They were even sometimes exposed to contagion so as it get it over with. Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, went the rounds of a neighborhood with tragic results. No one had yet connected the fact of a cholera epidemic with open sewers; no one saw death in an unsanitary milk supply; no one suspected that mosquitoes had anything to do with a high death rate. It was a better day for the children, and for their mothers as well, when doctors succeeded in impressing upon people that when sickness occurs it is generally some one’s fault and can generally be prevented.

When a comparison with the past induces us to “count up our mercies,” as the old woman who was charmed to find that although she only had two teeth they did meet in the middle, our blessings emerge with added luster. This brings us to the modern dentist and his works of mercy and skill. In the ‘sixties many a vigorous man or woman of forty was as good as on the scrap heap from decayed teeth. On one gives us more length of working days and joy in them than the dentist and he seems never to get any credit. What use are money and good clothes if you have no teeth? The art which gives to men of eighty the use of their digestion and their enunciation is a great one and insufficiently eulogized.


Back to "Dayton, Ohio - An Intimate History" Home Page